(2008)3Cammila CollarIt should probably be noted up front that Choke is not a movie for the squeamish, the faint of heart, the easily embarrassed, or virtually anyone who isn't game for watching modern life's ugliest and most sexually explicit truths projected unapologetically onscreen. But then, a viewer with such an uncomfortably modest predisposition should probably know better than to sit down and watch a movie like Choke in the first place. For the rest of us, the nastiness only adds to the appeal.
First of all, this is an adaptation of a popular Chuck Palahniuk novel. Palahniuk is the author behind 1999's Fight Club (a movie that sent hoards of hysterical critics into a spastic fit, calling the film antisocial and nihilistic), and much more pertinently, he's one of his generation's best-selling and most prominent authors of transgressional fiction. In a very dirty nutshell: this stuff is supposed to be shocking, cynical, and raw. That seeming irreverence to basically everything is part of the fundamental mechanism through which this style of narrative imparts its meaning. Plenty of audience members are sure to shut down before they can imbibe a single footnote of the story's subtext, but it doesn't change the fact that the message of a movie isn't always determined by the actions of the main character. And in the case of Choke, the protagonist actually does spell out the film's thesis for you -- eventually.
Prudish viewers don't even really need to be familiar with Palahniuk to know what they're getting into with this movie; one would hope they'd shy away based on the premise alone. Sam Rockwell plays Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted historical reenactor at a Colonial Williamsburg-type destination for school field trips and particularly boring nuclear families. Victor's mother (Anjelica Huston) lives in an extended-care facility with early-onset dementia so severe that when Victor comes to visit, she always thinks he's someone else. Usually, she's convinced he's a lawyer from her days as a fugitive political activist -- a career that mostly consisted of doing lots of drugs, and committing dangerous acts of public mischief carried out with the help of her son, whom she'd kidnap from his current foster parents until the next time they got caught.
This history is told through flashbacks -- which are a dicey medium to use in any movie -- but for Choke's purposes, there was really no other choice. Thankfully, they're executed fairly painlessly, and while you can't help noticing that they had to add a little sepia tone to make Huston pass for 20 years younger, the sporadic jumps to Victor's childhood provide such sharp contrast to his present-day debauchery that the intended meaning behind our hero's scandalous lifestyle becomes crystal clear. And the scandal is clear, too; make no mistake about it, Victor has tons and tons of sweaty, grinding, unglamorous sex with every woman he can get his hands on -- and he gets a flash of a previous or hopeful encounter with nearly every woman he can't. But Victor's carnal shenanigans are a compulsion. Remember, he's an addict, with a painful if somewhat earnestly presented backstory. The film pulls no punches in portraying Victor's myriad sexual adventures with frank insight into the erotic adrenaline rush that he gets out of them, but it also lays it on the line in depicting how this never-sated compulsion is really a grotesque expression of sadness and trauma. Incidentally, his titular habit of feigning choking in restaurants as a ploy to make money is linked just as directly to these themes, but choking isn't nearly as interesting as full-frontal nudity.
The film succeeds because of this mixture of wry irreverence and genuine vulnerability. It satirizes the hypocrisy of sexual mores with an abandon that feels undeniably cool, but it also arrives at its emotional apex without face-saving or apology. After all, the movie tackles the wild and improbable events that propel the plot (not half of which are listed here) with enough conviction to make them seem, well, not entirely impossible -- it might as well dive toward the deeply felt, unprotected underbelly of its climax with the same force. Lucky for those who can handle it, it does.
Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) has got some problems -- when he's not at Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings hunting for women to bed, he masquerades as a choking victim in restaurants as a scheme to gather money from unsuspecting strangers, which he uses to keep his ailing mother (Anjelica Huston) in a high-end extended-care facility for her extreme dementia. But what happens when this messed up Colonial-era theme-park employee finds Mrs. Right in the guise of his mother's doctor -- and how can he give their relationship a try when she tells him he's the next coming of Jesus Christ? Based on Chuck Palahniuk's (Fight Club) pitch-black comedic novel, Choke is adapted and directed by David Mamet alumni Clark Gregg, whose career spans stage, screen, and TV work as well as a screenplay credit for Robert Zemeckis' 2000 thriller What Lies Beneath.